Postcard from Sweden


POSTCARD FROM SWEDEN – 2016

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Why Sweden, you ask? It’s simple. SAS just instituted a non-stop flight from LA to Stockholm, and were offering such a low roundtrip fare that the bargain hunter in me was unable to resist. Besides, though we had already visited Denmark and Norway, we had never been there.  When I came home one day and said to Miki, “Want to go to Sweden at the end of August?” she didn’t hesitate a second in replying, “Sure!” I envy her retirement schedule.

After booking our flights, I started my research on where we should go, what we should see, how we should get there. I kept bringing home reams of paper printouts about places we might visit, hotels, restaurants, as well as train schedules and car rental options. Being the organized person she is, Miki promptly filed all the information in a folder labeled “Sweden.” She didn’t actually look at any of the stuff I dredged up, nor read any of the historical data I suggested to her, considering it superfluous for two people to share the same knowledge. I suppose I should be happy that she allows me to make all these choices without much input, and since this pattern hasn’t changed over 35 years of our relationship, you would think I’d have accepted it by now. As we keep repeatedly proving, we are not rational in many of our behaviors.

If Norway is the land that laughs with flowers, Sweden is the land that sparkles with water. Stockholm is on an archipelago of 14 islands on the Lake of Malaren, and has been called a Nordic Venice by many. (The Swedish archipelago has over 30,000 islands.) Since its founding in 1252 by Birger Jarl (a name you see all around town, including being the name of one of our hotels,) the city has grown into one of Europe’s most beautiful capitals. I appreciated the fact that despite plentiful public transportation options, tourists can walk to see almost all the sights. By now, Miki has (mostly) gracefully accepted my preference of seeing places on foot, and allowing the maximum of serendipity in guiding us to some of our most enjoyable travel finds.

It doesn’t take long to appreciate that engineering and design are well developed in this country, starting with the Arlanda Express, the bullet train that whisks you the 60 km.  from the airport in just twenty minutes to the Central Train Station in the heart of downtown Stockholm. We walked out of the station, picked up some maps and tourist info, then walked 1 block to our first hotel, the Freys. Though our room was small and Spartan, the beds were comfortable, and the location, free wi-fi, and a sumptuous buffet breakfast each morning more than met our needs. Since we arrived by 11 AM, we still had the whole day to not succumb to jet lag, so we walked around a bit in the city center with its mix of baroque, art deco and modern architecture, before embarking on an hour boat ride to Drottingholms slott, the castle and gardens modeled after Versailles, built in the 1700’s for the Queen of Sweden. It is now the summer home of the Swedish Royal Family. The Court Theater, which we didn’t have time to visit, is a World Heritage Site, with hand painted scenery and manually operated wooden machinery, and offers opera performances and concerts during the summer. The nice part of the experience, besides the boat ride, is that there were very few people there, unlike the rolling herds tromping through Versailles speaking a cacophony of languages. By way of languages, it seems everyone in Sweden speaks excellent English, even in the country side, which takes a lot of stress off, not having to flip through phrase books. Away from the more touristy areas, restaurants usually offer menus only in Swedish; however, every waiter was most gracious in providing translations.

Have you heard of the Swedish tradition of fika? This is the word used for over a hundred years of drinking coffee, tea or juice alongside a baked good: to fika. Everywhere we traveled, there were dozens of cozy cafes and bakeries celebrating this custom, with each cup served at these locales being a work of art made from carefully selected beans and the perfect blend. And did I mention the pastries? This is my kind of place!

One thing I was not expecting based on my readings is that lot of places, including small bakeries, do not accept cash, only credit cards. So, if you come here, don’t convert your US currency to Swedish Kroners, or you’ll be stuck, and have to pay for another conversion back to dollars. It’s a sensible system, as small stores do not have to worry about keeping change, being at risk of robbery (aside from pickpockets, about which every store and hotel has warning signs) or theft from employees. Obviously, Sweden is a wealthy country, where everyone has access to a credit card. This high standard of living is also reflected in the prices, which are higher than we are used to. On the other side, prices include all taxes and tips; we found a main course in an average restaurant to run around $30, with a glass of wine or beer around $10.

We lucked out with the weather. Aside from one day of rain, we had mostly clear skies with daytime temps in the high 60s and low 70s, ideal for travel. If you go, I think end of August is an ideal time, and plan on spending at least a week. Those tourists who come by ship for 1-2 days can’t really get an impression of what this beautiful country is about. This, however, is my personal prejudice. I would rather spend a week in one place, rather than hop around to 5-6 countries just so I can say I’ve been there.

Recovering some after our long 11 hour flight, and following a hearty buffet breakfast (very civilized – served until 11 AM) we wandered most of the day through Gamla Stan, the Old Town, with its narrow, winding cobblestoned streets, hundreds of small stores and restaurants, and most imposing of all, the Royal Palace. The palace is open all year round, and offers the usual displays of the State Rooms and the royal State regalia. More interesting is to be outside the palace, and watch the frequent changing of the royal guards in their powder blue uniforms and polished chrome helmets with gold embossing. Not immediately apparent, but clear on close observation, is that a number of the guards are women, something you will not find in any other European country, though women do serve in the military elsewhere. We found a great bench from which to people watch (one of our favorite entertainments when we travel.) The power of the human voice to compel action was interesting to observe, as some tourist wandered across a chain barrier in order to take a better photo, only to be abruptly and immediately brought short by one of the guards yelling “HALT!” in a loud and imperious tone, followed by removing his rifle from the parade rest position. No other action was required.

After a while, we followed the sound of music around the corner to the front of the Nobel Prize museum, where the Royal Cadet Core was performing in concert. After a couple of classical pieces, they did Abba’s Dancing Queen, followed by a medley from Star Wars. The music was good, but again, the people walking by provided the best of the entertainment.

Knowing that Miki requires regular feedings, we found a nice tapas bar with outdoor seating. The food was good enough that I wrote them a good review on TripAdvisor. We bypassed many of the museum options available, and strolled instead along the harbor, watched a couple and their wedding party disembarking from a boat, then meandered back through the twisty pedestrian passages to our hotel. Along the way, I spotted a small restaurant with only six tables with good smells and a great vibe inside. It’s called the Hairy Pig, and after making a reservation, that night we had the best smoked wild boar I have ever eaten – highly recommended!

The next day we again walked around the harbor in a different direction to visit the Vasa Museum, containing the world’s only surviving 17th century warship, the 64 gun Vasa, which sank in the harbor on its maiden voyage. Rediscovered and raised in 1961, the ship has more than 98% of its original structure and incredibly beautiful ornamental wood carvings. Aside from the ship and a movie about its recovery, the museum also offers insights into how the ship sank – bad design, and how the court of inquiry failed to find anyone responsible, due their royal connections. Most interesting to me, though, was a series of exhibits about events which were happening around the world at the time of the ship’s building, bringing into clear view how ethnocentric our Western cultural history truly is, and how war, oppression, conquest, and lust for power is such a universal characteristic of our species. I left the museum sobered, and more than a bit depressed. Fortunately, that mood passed, as we found yet another tasty spot to quench our appetite. Some might accuse us of traveling mainly to eat; I confess, there is some truth in the accusation, for the world offers so many great varieties of meals. Walking around Sweden is not only a feast for the stomach, but also for the eyes. Aside from the architecture and the natural scenic beauty everywhere, we saw more attractive people walking around the streets than would be found on a Hollywood set.

We had decided to travel outside the city by car, so we rented a VW Golf, and the next day drove to Uppsala, a university town only 45 minutes from Stockholm. It’s the 4th largest city in Sweden, and the University the oldest, going back to the 1400’s. Carl Linneus, the botanist physician whose classification of plants we still use today, taught here. We visited his gardens, along with his home, now a museum. Celsius, the inventor of the temperature scale, also hailed from here. The Fryis river runs through the city, providing beauty, recreation, along with the Asp, a delicious fish served in the local restaurants. The pink Uppsala castle on top of the hill, symbol of secular power, has its cannons trained on the Cathedral, the religious power symbol, to remind the bishops of where the balance lies. Bicycles are everywhere; outside of Amsterdam, I had not seen a larger collection of this ubiquitous mode of transportation anywhere else. A lot of people ride their bikes to the train station, then take the 38 minute train commute to Stockholm to their jobs in the big city. After spending two leisurely days wandering around Uppsala, we drove to Vasteras, about an hour West, along the shores of Lake Malaren. We stopped at Anundshog, Sweden’s largest Viking burial mound, with five stone ships arranged in a way resembling Stonehenge – very impressive. Again, we had the place almost to ourselves, and the power of the place was almost palpable.

Vallby Open Air Museum was our last stop before reaching the city. It is a collection of old houses from the 1800’s, craft shops and animals, giving a visitor a good concept of what life must have been like for the people who lived here. They also had a small cottage from the 1950’s which people used as vacation homes, complete with period furnishings. It made me feel quite old, as it looked exactly like one of the places my family used to rent for our summer vacations in Wisconsin.

Vasteras was another pleasant surprise; a small city with scenic parks, old and modern buildings, and a large harbor, as well as a sand beach. We stayed in a classic old hotel on the main town square. Our bedroom window looked out at the Cathedral behind us. The city hall has a sculpture in front very similar to Picasso’s piece in Chicago’s downtown. We were impressed with how clean and orderly each city was, along with the quality of the roads. (I was very happy I listened to Miki and got a GPS for the car, for without it, getting around would have been quite traumatic.) I was happy we had decided to rent a car, otherwise we would not have had a chance to see the country side, or make the stops that we did.

If we had done nothing else on this whole trip, coming to Vasteras and having dinner at Frank’s would have made it all worthwhile. This small restaurant was rated number one in the city in every guide I looked at, so when I asked our hotel concierge if it was possible to get a reservation, she just laughed, telling me the place was booked up weeks and months in advance. However, the gods were smiling, and we managed to secure a 9 PM booking. I have to say, with the possible exception of a dinner in Lake Como a number of years ago, this was the best meal Miki and I ever had. The restaurant does not have a menu. They will ask you what you prefer, meat or fish, and if you have any allergies. The chef then prepares a meal for you consisting of two appetizers, a main course, and dessert, each paired with a glass of wine selected  by their sommelier. I ordered meat and Miki fish, and we kept tasting each other’s dishes with the impossible task of deciding which was better. Service was excellent without being fussy or pretentious. I’m not sure what each dish contained, but the flavors were subtle, wonderful, and the afterglow of each dish built to a crescendo of taste experiences I won’t ever forget! Now we’re home, and still processing all the moments that made this such a memorable journey. Hoping to see you all soon,

George & Miki

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Postcard from the Danube


 

POSTCARD FROM THE DANUBE

“Travel is more than a series of sights. It is a change that goes on…deep and permanent in the ideas of living.” Following St. Augustine’s advice, Miki and I have been doing our best to experience as much of the world as time permits, and these postcards record some of our experiences to serve as reminders when time blurs our memories. Maps represent a landscape, but writing about a place re-represents it as it was experienced, the feel of it as it registered in one’s muscles and bones. If we experience space as an idea, we experience places through sensory impressions – the seen, heard, smelled, felt, tasted.

We can’t go to Europe without visiting son Peter, daughter-in-law Stephanie, and precious granddaughter, Tessa, who turned two in February. We were received like royalty, with delicious meals presented with restaurant élan, and all of Tessa’s charms, which are considerable. We were quite happy to see Cecile, Steph’s sister, who we hadn’t seen since Peter’s wedding nine years ago. We also had a chance to have dinner with Nil, Miki’s wonderful and generous friend from her Harvard days. I’ll pass over the glories of Paris in the spring, when the whole city is in bloom, as I’ve written of them in prior Postcards. (You can find these on my website,  https://gferenczi.wordpress.com/ ) For the first time, we used Airbnb to find a place close to Peter’s apartment. (He actually found it for us, just a few blocks away.) It turned out to be very nice, airy, overlooking a park. The only problems were that when we arrived, the entry code we were sent didn’t work, and we had no response to our text messages; we were told that phone contact was not possible. Fortunately, Steph pressed different combinations, and we eventually got in. The bathroom was interesting – a toilet in a closet so tiny that they had to carve out a part of the door in order to close it, and a shower in a corner of a space about the size of an airplane toilet. The shower head, located in the center of the ceiling overhead, was great if you wanted to wash your hair. If you didn’t, yoga and flexibility was required. Due to space limitations, it was best to soap the walls, then move your body to the tempo of a disco tune.  I also discovered that one of the shower knobs weighing several kilos had a disconcerting manner of flying off the wall and potentially maiming a leg, so it was best left removed once the water was running, then re-attached once you safely escaped the shower stall. These are the details that give fodder for our travel tales. Fortunately, Peter and family will be visiting with us in July, so we were able to tear ourselves away to begin our Danube journey, knowing we would see them again soon.

Having spent the first nine and a half years of my life in Budapest under the Communist regime, and having left under dramatic circumstances, returning after a twenty year hiatus since my last visit was a bittersweet experience. The Castle, the Danube, the bridges, the landscape is much the same; alas, a landslide has taken place in me. For those of you on the ship, I shared part of my story with you, which was cathartic, and I appreciate you listening. I hope all of you appreciated the Formula-1 race through the city streets, the Red Bull air show extravaganza, as well as the fireworks display during our night cruise on the Danube we had arranged for you. Sadly, we can’t promise the same for our next tour, though we’ll do our best.

Strangers are just friends waiting to happen. While walking down Vaci Utca, the main shopping street in Budapest, Miki bumped into an elegantly dressed lady, which resulted in a conversation, wherein we learned that: despite her appearance of being in her 60’s, she was 88, that she lived for ten years in Rome, having left Budapest in 1956, and another ten in South Africa; that she moved back to Budapest in the late 90’s and loved the city, that she had a son who went to school at the Sorbonne, and was now the Hungarian ambassador to France, living in Paris. We could have conversed for hours, but we had to get back to board our ship so we could meet our group of 21 who we convinced to have this adventure with us, along with some delightful folks we got to know and whom we hope to see again. Andrew and Stephanie are a warm, inviting pastor couple from Adelaide, Australia who taught us quite a bit about life down under, as well as about the challenges of life in a ministry.  Lincoln and his wife Myra live in Chicago, which was my home town for ten years. Articulate, interested in literature and music, teacher, attorney, athlete, and having been given a challenging relationship with a father whose life could be turned into several Hollywood movies, Lincoln shared a lot of personal stories that lend life vibrancy, and for which I remain grateful. Attraction to people such as these teaches me again that sometimes the heart sees what is invisible to the eye.

Most of our group spent several days in Budapest, so they had a chance to appreciate the beauty and richness of the city (as well as its food and pastries.) Miki and I flew just the day prior to our ship’s departure, having chosen to spend family time in Paris. On a clear, sunny Sunday, the Emerald Sky set sail up the Danube to arrive in Bratislava the next morning. During the journey, I was able to given our group an abbreviated history of Hungary from its days as the Roman city Aquincium, through its Turkish occupation, the years of the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and its eventual fate through two World Wars and the Communist occupation, along with my personal experiences through 1956. I’m gratified to say most present managed to stay awake, and afterward, I allowed the numerous excellent tour guides handle the history of each area we visited. Bratislava is a bit of a Cinderella amongst Europe’s capitals, having been overshadowed by Budapest and Vienna during the times of the Hapsburg dynasty, and not gaining much recognition until 1993, when Slovakia became an independent state from the Czech Republic. Having suffered little damage during WW II, the city boasts well preserved Baroque and Rococo buildings and castles along with a wine industry that is mostly locally consumed, but produces some good bottles. Katerina, our local guide, proved to be excellent, with a sharp, dry sense of humor and a deep understanding of her nation’s history. In addition to showing off the local sights, she took a small group of us for a visit in the country with a local family. We had a chance to meet Marika, the mom, as well as her 18 year old daughter, along with their Chihuahua dog, and learn about their life and plans for the future. We were served excellent apple strudel made by her, as well as taste the wine made from the grapes on their land. What made it especially nice was its totally non-commercial nature. No one asked us to buy anything, nor did we feel that they were putting on a show for us. Marika spoke no English, so our guide translated, and her daughter spoke limited English, though probably understood a great deal more. The family received a very small stipend for doing this, but wanted to experience and learn about us just as much as we hoped to learn from them. I hope this program continues.

The Danube begins to narrow as you approach Vienna. The sides of the river are dotted with small towns and innumerable onion domed churches, interspersed with golden yellow fields of canola, popping up like mushrooms all throughout Europe as governments offer subsidies for the growth of this bio-fuel. Bike paths line both sides of the river, as people pedal by, waving at us in our indolence, as we sit on deck sipping our cappuccinos or afternoon drinks. Food on the ship is excellent, and certainly plentiful. It will be a long time before I dare to step on a scale to see how those calories translated into pounds.

We are given a half day bus and walking tour around the city, while some members of our group opt for the optional tour of Schonbrunn Palace. I’m glad Miki and I had spent time here before, as one day in a city with as many riches as Vienna is almost as cruel as being offered a whole tray of delicious pastries and not being allowed to sample any. At least the group had a chance to take photos of many of the impressive buildings and churches, and hopefully have their appetites whetted for a more extensive visit. Miki and I chose to spend most of our afternoon on a bench near St. Stephen’s cathedral, only a few blocks from where I lived with the Austrian family who temporarily took me in after I escaped from Hungary. It was a great place to people watch. We listened to a man (hard not to to) who sat and played a bagpipe. He wasn’t getting much attention until a young couple came by, sat down their backpacks, and did a very professional Irish jig for about ten minutes. A crowd gathered, but they picked up their packs, smiled and walked off. We also saw something I hoped never to see again – a young man sporting a large Nazi swastika on his arm. No one seemed particularly perturbed besides me. Sadly, while in Budapest, I heard people speaking on the street the kind of vile comments for which Fascism was infamous, and which appears to be again taking hold with the rise of right wing extremism in a number of European countries.

In the evening Emerald offered us a private concert of classical music by the Imperial Concert Orchestra, which turned out to be excellent. It wasn’t the Vienna Philharmonic, but it was in a small covert hall of one of the many palaces in the city, and with very good acoustics. We had a chance to see the city lit up at night as we made our way back to the ship, and set sail for our next port of call.

If you have to have one day of rain on a trip, having it on the day going through the Wachau Valley would be not be a bad choice. Home to numerous apricot orchards producing apricot products from jams to liqueurs, apricots helped saved the area from financial ruin when the local vineyards were wiped out by a virulent fungus. We made a brief stop in Durnstein, a picturesque small town where Richard the Lion Hearted was held captive after the Crusades, and around whose captivity several fanciful legends exist. Given the rain, none of us chose to trek up to the castle ruins, which by all accounts was built after Richard’s death. Thanks to a young lady who brought samples of local apricot products on board, we had a chance to sample the wares, and I must say, some were excellent. It was only the thought of lugging jars of jam or bottles booze around with us that kept me from buying some.

We stopped in Melk in the early afternoon, and took another tour of the monastery, arguable the most famous Benedictine monastery outside of Monte Casino. It’s justly famous for its extensive library, still in use today by research scholars, as well as its incredibly ornate and impressive church. We had taken a tour of the place some 20 years ago, but I’m glad we went again, both for our excellent tour guide, Christina, as well as for a chance to see all the audio-visual exhibits that had been added since our prior visit. The rain came to a stop at the end of our tour, allowing the heartier members of our group to walk back through town to the ship.

Having spent time in Salzburg on prior trips, Miki and I opted out of this visit, and chose instead to be in Passau, Germany, close to the Austrian and Czech border. Sitting at the confluence of the Danube, Inn and Ilz rivers, the interplay of the sights and the baroque historical center with its narrow and winding little streets and alley-ways creates an ambience making the city extraordinarily beautiful. Rich from the salt trade passing through it, Italian Baroque masters created a city with an Italian flair. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the home of the world’s largest cathedral organ, and the city’s university, although founded only in the 1970’s, is considered one of the best in Germany. The tensions between the city and the university dissipated after the tragic record high flood of 2013 buried the town in silt and debris, to which university students responded by the thousands, helping the town and its people dig out of the muck. Tobias, our guide, showed us photos of streets on which we were standing filled with water past the second floor of the buildings.

There are 24 locks the ship has to pass to go from Budapest to Nuremberg, and watching the operation of these is impressive navigation. The biggest lock we go through raises/lowers ships by 23 meters, and takes an hour to get through. Our ship, the largest on the river, has a clearance of only inches on either side. The captain has a coke bottle on the bow of the ship. If it gets knocked over, the ship won’t make it through the lock, and he has to make the ship ride lower by pumping water into its ballast tanks.

Before we reach Regensburg, I see what looks like the Parthenon on the port side of the ship. This the Valhalla, the mythical hall of the palace of the Norse gods, built in the early 1800’s by Ludwig I during the rise of nationalism to honor those persons who made the greatest contribution to German history and culture.

Regensburg, located at the northernmost point of the Danube River, had been an important Roman city (Castra Regina) and has been a commercial and religious center since. It was the seat of the German parliament (Reichstag) and is unusual among major German cities in never suffering serious destruction throughout its long history. Encompassing every style imaginable of European architecture, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, with numerous open air cafes and traditional taverns, offering something for each visitor. The cathedral of St. Peter is arguably the finest Gothic cathedral in Bavaria, and certainly impressive. It’s a great place to sample Wurst, the local fried sausages, and wash it down with some of the excellent beers produced here. The ship has a traditional German oompah-pah band on board for our entertainment. My bright and effervescent friend Betsy from Seattle who couldn’t persuade her husband to join her on this trip brought along Lisa from San Diego, whose husband is also travel averse. Lisa was not only a delightful addition to our troop, but had also purchased a genuine Dirndl, a traditional folk dress, and surprised all of us (and the band) by getting up, singing, and dancing with the band!  Needless to say, she brought down the house, as well as winning my eternal admiration J Every person is a new door to a different world.

From here, we enter the Main-Danube canal, which brings us to our final river destination, Nuremberg. We don’t have time to spend here, as we are transferred by coach to Prague, about a three hour journey, led by Pavel, our Czech guide, who will remain with us for the rest of our trip. As we cross from Germany to the Czech Republic, Pavel points out the unpopulated and forested zone surrounding the border that represents what was not long ago the Iron Curtain, with listening posts, barbed wire, mines, and other restrictions to keep its citizens away from the freedom of the Western countries. Ironically, our first stop inside the Czech Republic is a McDonalds, as it provides free restrooms to our group, who by now are in need of such relief. The place is a lot more upscale than any McDonalds I’ve been in, and in addition to the standard fare, offers a bakery/pastry counter with tantalizing goodies.

We arrive in Prague on a Saturday, so we don’t encounter much traffic coming into the city. Our hotel the K&K, is on a small side street off Wenceslaus Square, and the bus driver has some difficulty navigating the narrow street with cars sticking out, so he has to drop us off at the main thoroughfare, which is crowded with thousands of people. Television vans are also about as it turns out we arrived just in time for a demonstration against a Russian motorcycle gang riding through Europe in support of Putin and his policies. Next door to our hotel is a sex club with posters of some their “stars.” In front of the place are men wearing red suits and silver ties, trying to steer customers in from the main drag. Judging by the number of people we see coming and going from the place during our stay, sex is still a growth business.

The good weather gods continue to smile upon us throughout our stay. Miki and I found several great restaurants in the city just by following my nose, which hasn’t failed us yet. Throughout our trip, Miki has ordered Wiener schnitzel in every place that had it on their menu, and found the best one here. I, on the other hand, am in 7th heaven with mushrooms, roast duck, cabbage and dumplings. Not a light fare, I admit, but how often does one have a chance to eat food like this?

Sunday morning we get up early, for Pavel wants to get an early start, as the Marathon is being run in the city starting at 9AM, and he wants to get us up to the Castle to beat all the road closings coming up. The hotel serves an incredible breakfast buffet, perhaps even better than the ship’s. Stuffed to the gills, we manage to make it up to the Castle by 8 AM, and find we have the place almost to ourselves. Pavel keeps commenting on how he had never seen the place so devoid of tourists. We find that not even the guards are there in the sentry boxes. Turns out, they don’t arrive until 9 AM, and we get to watch their arrival. It’s not nearly as impressive as Buckingham Palace, but hey…

At 10AM, we are taken to one of the palaces on the Castle compound, and served flaky, warm strudel on a terrace providing the best views of the city. I didn’t think I could eat again so soon, but duty calls! Washed down with coffee, enveloped in pastry high, siting in the sun looking over one of the most beautiful cities in the world – I can see why it was good to be a king. Eventually, we make our way down from the castle hill, through a charming, tiny vineyard, past the Kafka Museum, and on to the Charles Bridge with its statues and now throngs of tourists, circled by pick-pockets (thankfully, having been warned numerous times, no one in the group suffered a loss) and past the astronomical clock in the Old Town Square, past the Tyne Towers, along the Danube, and into the Jewish Quarter. This city has something for everyone. Meanwhile, the Marathon is winding down, long after the elite runners have taken their medals, and still people crowd the course, yelling their encouragement and blowing horns for those whose victory will consist of finishing without dying (unlike the first runner of Marathon, who died at the end – I always thought there was a moral in that.)

Monday, we have a day to ourselves. Time to do more people watching, get some last minute souvenirs for friends back home, and reflect on how lucky we are to be able to travel like this. It’s great to have a day when the biggest task is finding the next place to have a good meal,  and where the choices are so plentiful. Our last evening in Prague we decided to attend a guitar concert along with Judy, one of our group from home. The concert is held in a small hall inside an art gallery, and far exceeds my expectations in terms of musicality as well as my personal enjoyment. Performed by a local couple, he a professor of music at the University, and she an artist, the program of Bach, Vivaldi, Telemann, and flamenco classics was a winner. Though the only words spoken were “thank you” in several languages at the end of the concert, the music spoke for itself. Other members of our group went to hear Don Giovanni at the Opera House, a 3 ½ hour production. We tried to reassure them that while the libretto was in Italian, they no doubt would have subtitles in Czech. The rest of the crew went to the Philharmonic for a “Best of Classical” concert, similar to the one we heard in Vienna. Hopefully, they all had a good experience.

Our flight home was fortunately uneventful, as we slowly readjust to the realities of our everyday lives. Slipping into the interstices of the world, spurred along by the winds, our travels seem tailor made to add depth to reality’s flat surface. It’s all delightfully fun, an incandescent interlocking of people and places. We thoroughly enjoyed meeting and spending time with all our fellow travelers, many of whom are old friends, and none should feel slighted if not mentioned here by name. We look forward to doing this with you again. Best wishes to all,

George & Mikip1080385

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Postcard from Paris and the Rhine


Postcard from Paris and the Rhine River – 2015

One doesn’t need a reason to visit Paris, arguably the most beautiful city on the world. However, the fact that my son and one year old granddaughter live there provides added inducement. Despite the fact that we never set foot in a single museum, climbed up the Montmartre nor the Eifel Tower, and did none of the activities tourist typically do, this was probably our most enjoyable visit to the City of Light. One reason was my son and his wife’s gracious hospitality. They cooked for us, shared with us, and made us feel incredibly welcome. Seeing them happy together and functioning so well as a unit gave me, as it would to any parent, a great deal of comfort. Another reason for our enjoyment was granddaughter Tessa. Though we had seen her at Christmas, she had developed so many new skills and had transformed from a baby to a gorgeous little girl that we never tired of watching her, as she continued to melt our hearts.
One day we had the opportunity to have lunch with Jason and Leslie, two of Peter’s friends who had recently returned from Cairo, where they had received a grant to spend some time pursuing their art. Jason had written an insightful book of their experiences as Anglophones living in an Egyptian community, and Leslie created a multimedia presentation of art work she created while there, along with photos and interviews she did of women runners throughout the city. (She most generously presented us with a limited edition copy of her work.) We were fascinated by their stories, and admired their courage in undertaking this project. Our lunch took place at Le Paprika, an excellent Hungarian restaurant near the center of Paris, serving outstanding food at very reasonable prices. I highly recommend it on your next visit to France.
While in the city, we were also treated to dinner by Nil, Miki’s charming Algerian colleague from her days in the ortho program at Harvard. He lives not far from Peter in Montparnasse, and continues to practice in Chartres. We had a most memorable meal at Je the…me, the small, classic French restaurant we had discovered in the 15th on a prior visit, courtesy of Anthony Bourdain.
Peter’s wife, Stephanie, had recently bought a car, which she needs in order to commute to work, but which sits unused on the street on weekends and holidays. While visiting with them, we saw a system in action that is ingenious, whereby she could rent her car to someone during periods it’s not in use. It appears to be a well-developed program, with insurance, a Pay-pal type transaction, and other safeguards in place to ensure the satisfaction of both the owner and the renter.
All too quickly, our Paris days flew by, and soon we had to make our way to the Gare de Lyon to catch the bullet train to Zurich, and from there to Lucerne, Switzerland for the start of our Rhine River holiday. We had already fortified ourselves with tasty baguette sandwiches for the journey, and were waiting for the taxi that Peter had secured for us via the Internet. When the car didn’t show at the appointed time, Peter called the service, which apparently had no record of the reservation. Fortunately, they were able to get a cab to us in 15 minutes, so we caught our train without problem. Knowing we had to navigate trains and steps, we were travelling light, which is something I recommend for everyone. (Miki’s Latvian cousin, Sandra, is an expert in this art; she and her husband spent two weeks in South Africa with us with nothing by carry-ons) Though you may notice in travel photos we always seem to be wearing the same clothes, the advantages of not being weighed down by too much luggage cannot be overstated. Much as on airplanes, the TGV (the French rapid train system) assigns you a specific seat in a specific car. Unlike our Amtrak, these trains are ultramodern, extremely comfortable, and without the noise and the lurching we associate with rail travel in our country, though they fly along at speeds in excess of 100-120 mph. When we arrived in Zurich, we had 9 minutes to catch the next train to Lucerne. We originally thought we’d never make that tight a connection, but amazingly, we did, with a minute to spare. (There was another train in a half hour.)
Switzerland, unlike most of Europe, has not converted to the Euro, so I had to get some Swiss francs from the ATM. To give you an idea of how expensive Switzerland is, Miki had to pay 2 Euros or 2 Swiss francs (about $2.20 US) to use the bathroom! (If you come without money, I guess you just have to hold it.) Everything in Switzerland is clean and orderly, toilets being no exception. Our hotel was less than a mile from the train station, and normally we would have walked, but as it was raining, Miki opted we should take a cab. This cost just over $25 US dollars for the short ride. You get the picture.
Lucerne is Switzerland because it encompasses all the merits of the country: The City; The Lake; The snow covered Alps. Whatever you expect from a unique city, Lucerne offers it all to you with outstanding diversity. There is the avant-garde KKL Luzern (culture and convention center) of the Parisian architect Jean Nouvel alongside the historic sights which have survived for centuries, such as the covered Chapel Bridge with its gabled paintings of old battles, leading to quaint quarters with little streets, promenades, and plazas dominated by countless historical towers, fountains, and frescoed buildings.
The day after we arrived was Good Friday, so after taking a walking tour along Lake Lucerne dotted with numerous majestic swans haughtily swimming about, and having the various architectural highlights explained to us, we headed over to the large Baroque Jesuit Church built in 1666 for the afternoon services, held in German. A young soprano with an exquisite voice brought a special air to the mass. After the service, we climbed up to the Lion monument dedicated to the 800 Swiss soldiers who died in Paris trying to protect Louis the XVI during the French Revolution, and which, according to Mark Twain, “is the saddest sculpture I have ever seen.”
As expensive as Switzerland is, we can recommend two eateries we found that provided good value: one is the Weisse Kreuz, offering very good Italian food, and the other is Beuscher bakery, that in addition to great pastries, provides a delicious schnitzel baguette (Wiener schnitzel on crunchy French bread with a tangy dressing – yumm.)
Having met up with Fran, our friend and local travel agent, as well as the rest of the group, we headed out the next day to Basel, where we boarded our river ship, the Emerald Sky, which was to be our home for the next week. Holding 180 passengers, providing spacious accommodations with large picture windows that can be lowered for fresh air, and even a small swimming pool, this brand new ship (launched in 2014) was marvelously comfortable, and provided delicious food in great abundance throughout our trip. Half the crew is Hungarian, and being the only passenger who could speak to them in their native language, we were accorded royal service. The chef, Andras, even fixed Miki and I Wiener Schnitzel one evening after I had informed him it was her favorite, and she felt deprived not having any at our prior stops. (Le Paprika in Paris had just served their last portion when she ordered it.)
Miki, who is prone to sea sickness, was more than a bit apprehensive about being on a ship for a week. Her fears, however, were soon allayed, as the decks were as steady as rocks, even when large barges creating wakes passed close by. The only time you felt any motion was when we went through one of the 15 locks between Basel and Amsterdam (some with water level drops of more than 20 feet) and the ship, that had a clearance of literally a couple of inches on each side, would bump against the walls.
We arrived in Strasbourg, France on the morning of Easter Sunday. Originally established as a Roman outpost, the city is on the banks of the Ill River just where it flows into the Rhine on the border of Germany. Capital of the Alsace region, the city has passed back and forth between German and French control over the centuries, which is reflected both in its food as well as architecture. The historic city center, classified as a World Heritage site by UNESCO, is justly famous for its 16th and 17th century black and white timber- framed houses with their wooden galleries, windows with tiny panes of colored glass, as well as the overhanging upper levels. The cathedral with its 466 foot Gothic spire is a landmark visible from most parts of the city. Built in red sandstone, the outside requires frequent maintenance. The stained glass windows from the 12th, 13th and 14th century are remarkable. The huge organ is embellished by a case equipped with animated figures. The nearby Astronomical Clock has automata ringing out the quarter-hours and the figure of Death sounding the hours. Witnessing Easter mass in this setting, with the pews full, polychromatic light streaming across the aisles, and the feeling of history everywhere was quite special.
The Monday after Easter is a national holiday in both France and Germany, so when we arrived in Speyer early in the morning and walked into town (having skipped the optional tour into Heidelberg, which though quite charming, we had recently visited) we found the place to be literally deserted. It felt eerie walking through this beautiful city with nary a soul in sight. It was almost like we had walked onto a movie set that wasn’t being used, or were an unwitting part of a Twilight Zone episode where all the inhabitants were transported into another dimension. I confess to having total ignorance of Speyer, and was very pleasantly surprised to find that it not only contains the largest Romanesque church in the world, but also many other fine buildings, churches, statues, fountains and architectural features. We wandered through town for a couple of hours, and not until shortly prior to our departure did we begin to come across other people. If you are in the area I would not miss the chance to visit this site.
Sailing on to Manheim, we picked up the members of our tour who chose to go into Heidelberg, and continued on to Rudesheim. This more than a thousand year old town, surrounded by vineyards producing some of the best of German wines, with its narrow winding lanes and half-timbered buildings, offers romance and history rolled into one. In the center of town is the Drosselgasse, a cobblestone little alley no more than 500 feet long, filled with wine bars, restaurants and pubs, that judging by the number of languages spoken, attracts visitors from around the world. There is a cable car to take you to the Niederwald Monument which overlooks the city and the Rhine below. It commemorates the re-establishment of the German Empire in 1871 by Bismarck and Emperor Wilhelm I. Dotting the surrounding hillsides are a number of other castles and fortifications, one of which now contains a large wine museum. I somewhat regret not having visited the Siefried Mechanical Musical Cabinets, a museum of one of the largest collections of self-playing musical instruments in the world. For the price of one euro, I was able to witness one of these instruments performing its magic at the entrance of the building. There is only so much time!
The Rhine is said to be the most traveled river in Europe, and judging by the number of ships and barges we saw, I certainly believe that. Despite the hustle and bustle of the water traffic, cruising on the river is wonderfully relaxing. We were blessed with sunny, clear days for almost our entire journey, and thoroughly enjoyed sitting out on the deck with a cup of hot cappuccino watching the myriad of picturesque towns and castles unfold in front of us with each bend of the river. Kilometer markers in large black numbers on the shore provide clear reference points along the entire length of the Rhine, and the ship provided excellent maps and brochures describing the nature and history of each landmark town we were passing. Everyone on board cranes their neck to see the Lorelei, the statue of the long haired siren who lured sailors to their death with her song, and who still has enough magic to make us forget all but the beauty of the scenery that surrounds us.
In the biggest horseshoe bend of this mighty river sits Boppard (Bodobrica to the Romans who built a huge fort with 27 foot walls here, some of it still well preserved.) The Carmelite monks have been a strong presence in the town, and the former Carmelite monastery is now the town hall. For those of you into furniture, Boppard is also the home of Michael Thonet, who invented a process to bend wood into pretzel shapes and designed bentwood furniture still popular today. As you walk through town, there are illustrations on the walls of his work with the catalog number of each item. Talk about product placement!
Food on the ship always offered samples of the local cuisine, so we had the opportunity to try a large selection of pork meats and sausage (Wurst) of which there are about 1500 different kinds available. Herring is popular, especially in the northern part of the country, and was always an option in the mornings, along with my favorite, smoked salmon. Spätzle (literally “little sparrow”, and one of my personal favorites) is a soft textured egg noodle popular not only in Germany, but all through Eastern Europe. (In Germany, 40,000 tons are produced commercially each year, and this does not include the spätzle made in restaurants and homes!) Wine and beer at dinner is included in the price of the cruise, and we were offered a good sampling of the local products, excellent in quality, and which I must confess our group consumed liberally. The 180 passengers were from all over the US, and we met some very nice folks from each region. Fran, who continues her tradition of having a cocktail party in her room prior to dinner each evening, provided a venue for all the members of our group to get together and share experiences.
The river Mosel is one of the most beautiful aquatic landscapes in Europe, and its most scenic part is the last 100 miles before it enters the Rhine at Koblenz. Right in the heart of this postcard setting is the little town of Cochem. It is surrounded by a smattering of castles and abbeys within rolling peaks and sheer rock faces. Sitting in glory on a precipitous rock high above the town is the splendidly restored Reichsburg castle, dominating the landscape. The many delicate pointed towers, battlements and oriels give the impression of the typical fairy tale castle. Built originally in 1051, it was completely destroyed in 1689, then rebuilt and equipped with Renaissance and Baroque furniture by the Ravene family. Of all the places we visited along the river cruise, this is the one that touched me the most. Part of the reason was the design of its tour by a most charming and witty lady, who literally collected the keys to the castle at the gate, and guided us through each room of the wonderful edifice, opening and closing doors as we went along. The result was a visit through stately rooms decorated with taste, filled with wonderful carvings and art, unencumbered by the presence of other tourists and guides, giving a deeply imbued sense of what it must have been like for the original owners walking through this great edifice. The town itself exudes the typical Gemutlichkeit of lovingly restored medieval houses with slate roofs typical of the region. There is even a historical mustard mill (Senfmuhle) – one of the last of its kind in Europe.
Back on the Rhine, the scenery begins to change as you approach the city of Cologne (Koln in German) with the appearance of large industrial complexes along the river banks, reminding the visitor that they are seeing the heart of the German economy – manufacturing. Home of the inventors of everything from the clarinet to the diesel and jet engines, the fluorescent lamp and the microphone, Germany remains the powerhouse of Europe. I have to forgive them for the fact that they are also the creators of the garden gnome, which has managed to proliferate to all four corners of the world.
The origins of this city of over a million dates back to the Romans, and their buildings are still being found, such as by the excavations near the city hall. (We witnessed a marriage, at the end of which two white doves are released, possibly symbolizing the last flight of freedom ) The cathedral is the greatest Gothic edifice of Christendom with its twin towers of more than 500 feet. Colossal yet still airy, the stone columns draw the eyes up to the great stained glass windows soaring above the 14th century altar, behind which is the 12th century shrine reputed to hold the relics of the Three Magi. In addition to the Dom, the city is also home of the largest university in Germany, 30 museums and hundreds of galleries. Miki and I enjoyed walking through the well-kept parks along the Rhine, sitting on a bench, and watching local life unfold in front of us.
After a day in the city, we headed back to our ship, and sailed to our final destination, Amsterdam. This is a truly multicultural city, with 45% of the population originating from outside the Netherlands, many from former Dutch colonies such as Indonesia, Surinam and the Antilles, leavened with a mix of Turkish, Moroccan and Eastern European immigrants. Taking a cruise on one of the myriad ships gliding through its canals lined with houseboats is de rigeur for new visitors, but since we had done this before, we opted to meet Veronica, Miki’s Dutch friend from her ortho program in Boston, who came on her bicycle, along with her husband, Erik. They live close to where our boat docked, and along with the 500,000 other cyclists in the city, find this means of transportation both convenient as well as healthy. We spent a couple of pleasant hours catching up with them about the milestones of our lives at the café of the Eye, a museum of cinema and visual arts reached by the blue ferry the city provides as a gratis form of transport across the bay.
Our visit was well timed to see Keukenhof Gardens, displaying millions of bulbs of tulips, daffodils, hyacinths, and other spring flowers. The Gardens are only open two months out of the year in April and May, and even if you are not addicted to horticulture, well worth the visit. The fields of flowers driving up to the Gardens are enough to inspire an entire legion of Impressionist painters! I found it difficult not to take too many photos of the myriad floral displays.
That night we had a farewell reception on the ship, then caught a cab to Shiphol, Amsterdam’s hub airport for our connecting flight back to Paris, then home to LA. As we had a five hour layover at Charles de Gaulle, I tried to gain admission to the Air France lounge with the use of my American Express card. The man at the desk informed me they no longer extended this courtesy to card holders, but offered to let me pay with Air France miles. I thought 6,500 miles was a tad extravagant for this privilege, but agreed. When he looked at my boarding pass, the man commented that he had a son living in LA, so I shared with him the symmetry that I had a son living in Paris. This led to him offering to only charge one of us for mileage for admission to the lounge. I thanked him, and for the next five hours we had the pleasure of comfortable chairs, food and drink, and a large selection of newspapers and magazines. When we got to the gate, Miki noticed her name on the announcement board. Inquiring what the problem was, we were informed we had been upgraded (thanks to our benefactor whose name I didn’t even know) to First Class seats in row 1 of the plane. And people say the French are not nice to Americans! Thus came an unexpected wonderful ending to a most enjoyable holiday.

Best wishes to all of you,

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UNDER AFRICAN SKIES


UNDER AFRICAN SKIES

Zulu woman - South Africa

Zulu woman – South Africa

Giraffes - Ezulwini, South Africa

Giraffes – Ezulwini, South Africa

P1010298

Cheetah South Africa

Cheetah South Africa

Traveling to Africa leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller. Here, then, are some of my stories. (There are a great many more, but that would require a novel, not a Postcard.) It all started with a charity auction for my hospital. Miki had left me alone for three weeks to travel with sister Eva to Chile last year, and one of the items on auction was a safari to South Africa. Deciding that it’s easier to get forgiveness than permission, I bid on (and won) the stay in Ezulwini (“paradise” in one of the local languages, of which South Africa officially has eleven.) Now, we were committed to an experience that has been on my bucket list for some time, despite some reservations about joining the neocolonialist community that, through sky miles and vacation days, has effectively turned the developing world into a Sandals resort.
More than 3 million years ago, Australopithecus africanus, the southern ape men from whom homo sapiens evolved, roamed this land. Everyone is related to Africa; we are all distant cousins. The country is larger than Germany, France, Italy, Belgium and Holland combined. Kruger National Park, the world’s largest game reserve, is bigger than Israel. The country has more animal species than North and South America combined, and is the only country to have an entire floral kingdom within its borders. It has 23,200 plant species – a greater variety than the entire northern half of the planet.
The journey to Johannesburg (or Joburg, as the locals would say) involves a 5 ½ hour flight from LA to New York, then a 15 ½ hour flight from New York to South Africa. I know Miki would have preferred staying in New York the whole time, but even her skepticism of the travel was erased by the wealth of amazing sights and experiences our journey provided. We had been wisely advised to spend a couple of days in Joburg on arrival to allow recovery from the trip and visit some of the local sights.
Conrad and Brenda Holtzhausen manage Maritime Bushveld Estate on the outskirts of Johannesburg, one of two Ezulwini properties outside the game reserve. Conrad – tall, blond, friendly, rugged looking – central casting’s poster boy for an Afrikaner – picked us up at the airport, and deposited us at the Estate. The walled property on several acres consists of individual thatched houses of varying size, along with a large club house and adjacent pool – currently empty (an important fact to remember when walking the grounds at night.) Small antelopes (springbok) were roaming free, along with a variety of bird species. The trees and flowers were just starting to come into bloom, and since we arrived before the rainy season, bugs were yet to be a problem.
In Africa, they say “a person becomes a person through other people.” Words cannot convey the manner in which Conrad and Brenda made us feel at home, welcomed us as though we were part of their family, shared with us their personal stories (and excellent wine) and allowed us a glimpse of their beautiful country, filled with both promise and tragedy, sorrow as well as hope, through their own eyes. Through them, we learned the story of how Ezulwini came about, a little about the Saad family who brought it to fruition, as well as something of their own personal and family stories. Conrad cooked a braai for us, a traditional outdoor barbeque of steak, chicken and boerewors (farmer’s sausage.) He told us of the time in 1994 when he, along with most Afrikaners, expected an all-out genocide by the black majority after years of repression and speechless indignities against them by the eight percent white minority, and how Nelson Mandela, himself a prisoner in those jails for over twenty years, single handedly kept that from happening. (If you haven’t seen the movie “Invictus” it depicts the story fairly accurately, though Conrad thought Matt Damon was way too small to play the role of the rugby captain of the Springboks.) Though we only had a brief amount of time together on a short two day visit, we felt as though we had known these people for a very long time, and had a connection with them that (hopefully) will last through years to come. This is not an experience we commonly encounter.
Reflecting back, the three highlights of our trip were the people we met, the animals we saw, and the beauty and variety of the lands we visited. Amos was our guide and driver during our Joburg stay. A retired teacher (he told us the only career options open to him under apartheid were those of policeman, clerk, priest or teacher) of not quite ebony skin, stocky, and possessed a wry sense of humor, he educated us about politics (no one is happy about the current corrupt government,) education (worse with the one pass/all pass policy of the schools,) crime (wide-spread, often run by ring leaders from other African countries,) violence (avoid confrontation with drivers of minibus taxis, as it likely will get you beat up or killed, and avoid lands adjacent to Mozambique, where rogue soldiers often raid and pillage,) as well as a host of other social and religious issues. Despite a hard life, he managed to raise children who are well educated and leading productive lives. He also exhibited a kindness and a smile which we found amongst many of the black people we encountered. (As an aside, 80% of South African people are black, 8% are colored, i.e. mixes of black and white, 8% are white, and 2% are Asian or Indian. To underscore how rare it was to see white people in parts of the cities around Joburg and Pretoria, Miki, and her blond Latvian cousin Sandra, both had black people requesting to have their photos taken with them.)
We declined to visit Soweto, as I don’t subscribe to the growing global phenomenon of poverty tourism (“poorism”) where rich people pay to be guided through shanty towns and favelas. We did, however, visit the jail in Joburg where both Gandhi and Mandela were held for a time. In operation until 1987, it held over 2,000 prisoners with 12 toilets and showers, along with procedures designed to maximize degradation of the body and spirit. “Horrible” and “inhuman” barely begin to describe what we saw. Amos wisely balanced this experience by next taking us to the new constitutional court, where issues pertaining to the new democratic charter are decided. In the afternoon, Amos drives us through the countryside to a village where we are to experience the lifestyle of the Zulu, Xhosa, and three other tribal groups. Designed obviously for tourists, we are surprised that aside from four airline attendants from Qatar Air, we are the only visitors. Nonetheless, we are given the full tour, including demonstration of tribal dances. Our hostess, in Zulu native dress, turns out to have applied for a job with Qatar Air, and chats happily with the crew about her job prospects. We do live in a global village! There is a banquet of native foods, including ostrich, crocodile and impala – all delicious. Amos, who obviously enjoys his food, had as delightful time as we did.
We met Sandra (Miki’s cousin from Latvia) and her husband Edgars at Johannesburg airport for the flight to Hoedspruit, the airport that is the gateway to Kruger and the safaris. We hadn’t seen them since our meeting in Ireland, and while they had made their own safari plans, we would met up again afterward and spend the rest of our time together in Cape Town. In Hoedspruit, we are met by Peter, a jovial Afrikaner with a rugby player build. A local boy who worked at Ezulwini for over five years, he now freelances, but is obviously knowledgeable about all the surrounding flora and fauna, as he gives us a mini preview of our bush experience. He has the same outgoing, friendly demeanor that we continue to experience with most of the Afrikaners we meet during our stay.
Ezulwini has two lodges, and the first two days of our stay are spent at the River Lodge, appropriately located on the bank of a river. We are in one of the thatched roof bungalows, complete with a canopied bed covered with mosquito netting. I look around and fail to see Kathryn Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart or the African Queen sailing up the river, but there is no doubt we are in Africa. There are impalas grazing outside, and I catch sight of a velvet monkey on the walkway to the river. (He, or one of his friends, was later to snatch some of my lunch, a clear signal I had probably eaten enough.) Glory, a young black woman with a radiant smile, is our hostess during our stay. She, along with the rest of the staff, never seem to forget our names, and everyone goes out of their way to make sure we are comfortable. We soon meet another pleasant couple from Hawaii, one form Colorado, as well as a pair of older ladies traveling from San Diego. We discover that all of us came to Ezulwini through some kind of charity auction, which from my point of view, is a brilliant marketing ploy.
Animals are most active at sunrise and near sunset, so the safaris are scheduled to take advantage of this cycle. We are awakened at 5:30 AM, offered coffee, tea and biscuits (not too much – there are no bathroom facilities in the bush, and while one can take advantage of the bush itself, it’s not considered advisable to leave the relative safety of the Land Rover, lest you become prey yourself.) The Land Rover seats a maximum of ten people, including the driver/guide, as well as the tracker, who sits on the front left of the hood. (In Africa, like England, they drive on the left side of the road.) We have a roof on the vehicle, but the sides are completely open, making for a cool ride, especially early in the morning and after the sun sets. The tracker scans the dirt road for foot prints, and when he sees fresh ones of an animal of interest to us, he directs the vehicle off road into the brush. As most trees and bushes in Africa come equipped with large thorns, this can at times be quite exciting.
It’s amazing how an animal as large as an elephant or a giraffe can become invisible to your untrained eye! When the guide point left, and says, “giraffe”, you look, and at first you see nothing but trees and bush. Then, all of a sudden you see – not one, but four giraffes, grazing placidly amongst the tree tops, moving slowly with that particular graceful lope, not more than ten yards away from you. Soon, we come upon a herd of impalas. They look healthy, graceful with their curved horns, beautiful in their sleek, light brown pelts, with the characteristic dark brown streaks on their posterior flanks in the shape of the letter M – marking them as the fast food for all the predators of the veldt. Half way through each safari, we find a clearing, where we can safely get out of the jeep with good visibility without concern that something will stealthily sneak up on us, and have a coffee break in the morning, or wine, beer or soft drink at sunset.
Our two guides, Alexander and Rex, and two trackers, Richard and Franz, are all very, quiet, soft spoken people. They all grew up in the bush, and were taught by their fathers the art of tracking and the vagaries of animal behavior. We realize we are totally dependent on their skill and knowledge, both in finding animals to see, as well as for our safety, for none of the guides carry guns, and none are permitted on the reserve. We had one episode where one of the elephants charged our Land Rover, giving Miki quite a scare, though the guide was prepared, having approached the animal by backing the vehicle toward him, and being able to accelerate away. However, if the car stalled….I was told that an elephant flipped a jeep the year prior. Nothing in life is without risk.
Words, and not even photos, do no justice to the experience of seeing these beautiful animals moving in their natural environments. We saw all of the Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, cape buffaloes, and rhinoceros. (Called the Big Five because they are the most dangerous to hunt on foot.) We also saw hippos, crocodiles, hyenas, jackals, an assortment of antelopes, not to mention more birds than we could identify with our field guide. Still, nothing describes the experience of coming eye to eye with a majestic leopard. We were so close! I was staring at him for a long time, and I felt a recognition with my own nature. Amazing! Then, watching a pride of lions feasting on the zebra they had just brought down, the mother lying on the ground looking out over the dry grass, while the cubs, with their muzzles smeared with blood, were getting their bellies filled – so primal!
Billy’s Lodge, the larger and more luxurious of the two lodges, was our home for the last three days of the safari. Here, we were fortunate to meet Laurence, the owner, who had just arrived for a visit, and was accompanied by some of his local friends. Laurence is married to a British woman, lives part of the year in London, part in Seattle, and part in South Africa. He was having a braai for his friends, and was not only kind enough to include us, but also had us down in his wine cellar for a special tasting of some of his favorite wines. The cellar itself is amazing, with one wall of natural rock, dug out under the main building, with a beautiful table carved from a tree trunk. One of his friends present was the architect, and he did a remarkable job. After the wine tasting, and prior to the meal, the staff (numbering around 14) danced and sang a traditional song of welcome – umakoti ngowathu isyavhuma. It was a once in a lifetime experience under African skies.
All of Laurence’s friends had interesting stories to share. We especially bonded with Marita of the sad but smiling eyes, originally from Slovakia, currently living with her husband in Bulgaria, but looking to move elsewhere, with the entire world being considered. Meeting these great people, along with our fellow travelers, added immeasurably to our experience.
All too soon, it was time to leave Ezulwini and fly to Cape Town. We again met Sandra and Edgars at the airport, and took off. On arriving, Sandra had arranged for our condos on the VA Waterfront. We were each supposed to get a one bedroom place, but lucked out in each getting a two bedroom three bathroom suite with balcony overlooking the canal. The place was almost bigger than our house, and wonderful. Cape Town is a beautiful cosmopolitan city, backed by scenic Table Mountain and Lion’s Head, fronted by the Atlantic Ocean. Besides the harbor, the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront is home of numerous shops (though we did almost no shopping, save for a few souvenirs for friends and co-workers,) restaurants (outstanding, with reasonable prices), a great Aquarium, which we visited, and the port for the ships going to Robben Island, visible off shore, where Mandela was the most famous prisoner.
No Postcard from me is complete unless I say something about the food. Varied and outstanding are two words that fist come to mind. Cuisine ranges from Cape Malay curries and spices to game roasts and local fresh fruits and vegetables. You don’t have to ask for “organic” here, for everything is. Given the international flavors of South Africa’s heritage, it is not surprising that the foods reflect these influences. We ate in some excellent restaurants in Cape Town at prices about half of what we would pay at home. Stand-outs I would recommend are Den Anker (Belgian, great view and food,) Willoughby & Co. (incredible sushi and seafood, as attested to by the always full tables,) and brunch at the Cape Grace (a classic hotel whose décor, fine linens and service will transport you to the apex of what once was the best of the British Empire). And if you’re a real foodie, the restaurants in the wine regions I speak of below offer world class cuisine to match any found on the European continent.
Bo-Kaap is the home of Cape Muslims and the Malay culture of Cape Town. Here is the oldest mosque in the area, along with houses painted in bright colors and pastels, creating a photographer’s paradise. Not far from here is the City Center, with British colonial architecture admixed with modern glass and steel high-rises. Here also is the Houses of Parliament, the official seat of the South African government. Flanking the famous Company Gardens, originally established to provide ships rounding the Cape of Good Hope with fresh supplies, are the Natural History Museum and Planetarium, The Jewish Museum, the National Gallery, and access to the Table Mountain Cableway.
We hired a car with a driver, a very pleasant and soft spoken young man who turned out to be a refugee from the Belgian Congo. He led us on the scenic Champman’s Peak drive, overlooking pristine white sand beaches and expensive sea side communities. We drove all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope, the most southwestern point of the African continent. It is often cold and drizzly in this area, and our visit was no different. As soon as we had our obligatory tourist photo of us grimacing into the wet wind as we stood behind the iconic sign, we headed back to warmer climes and sunny beaches. We stopped to visit the African penguin colony, and had an excellent seafood lunch in Simon’s Town. We were also lucky enough to spot several right whales right off the beach. We watched these amazing mammals rolling about the sea for some time before heading further up to the beach where more great white sharks have been reported than anywhere else in the world. Miki stopped to have a photo taken with one of the shark spotters. They have flags indicating the presence or absence of sharks in the area, and if one of the sharks is close to the beach. If there is no flag, it means there is no one watching, and you’re on your own.
Kirstenbosch Gardens is the most impressive arboretum I have ever visited. Covering two square miles, the gardens have a dizzying array of plants indigenous to South Africa, as well as from around the world. The avenue of camphor trees were planted by Cecil John Rhodes in 1898 along his favorite ride.
South Africa is the home of some great wineries and excellent wines. Accordingly, we spent a day in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek enjoying the spectacular scenery of the countryside with hills reminiscent of Yosemite Valley, then rolling lands and grapevines scattered below. Naturally, we tasted some memorable and occasionally forgettable wines, had a wonderful lunch by one of the wineries, and enjoyed the luxury of a wine tasting experience where one of us did not have to be the designated driver.
We realized looking at the map and sightseeing options that we were barely scratching the surface of all that South Africa offers, but I prefer to explore one area in greater detail than just checking off destination points to say I’ve been there. What I regret the most is not having had more time to get to know some of the wonderful people we met during our adventure. We offered you an invitation to come and visit us if you’re ever in the Los Angeles area, and we want you to know that our offer is genuine. In the same manner, those of you who asked to see us again, beware! We are the type of people likely to show up and take you up on the offer. (If you were just being polite, start thinking of excuses now.)
It was wonderful to share this experience with Sandra and Edgars, both of whom are seasoned travelers (who else do you know can manage a two week trip with just a back pack and a carry-on?) Fortunately, we will get to see them again early next year when they are due to visit the States.
St. Augustine observed that travel is more than a series of sights. It is a change that goes on – deep and permanent in the ideas of living. One thing can be said for sure – South Africa never leaves one indifferent.

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Postcard from Ireland


POSTCARD FROM IRELAND

Every journey tells a story. The story of our trip to Ireland could be told with a recitation of castles we saw, cities we visited, food we ate, entertainment we watched, people we had accompany us on the journey. However, to do this would be to ignore the experience of Ireland, the warmth of its people, the tragedies of its history, the beauties of its land, the richness of its culture, the soul-stirring rhythms of its music, the joy of its dances. Time and space will force me to recite the more prosaic story, but it would not be fair to do so without confessing that this trip accomplished that most sought after prize of travel – it changed how I see the world and the people who weave its ever changing fabric. Truth may be unimpeachable, but the facts are up for constant review.
Special credit must go to Brendan, our driver and tour guide, whose passion for history, his country and his people made the stories behind the places we saw come vibrantly alive, as well to Darragh MacIntyre, whose book, “Conversations”, interviews with 49 people from assorted backgrounds living in contemporary Ireland, added a depth and texture to my experience of the country that would otherwise not have been possible.
Our group of 21 (that included one of my colleagues with a rare sense of humor and his charming fiancé) arrived in Dublin airport from different destinations. After collecting luggage (all of which arrived as intended) and companions, we made our way to Cabra Castle, a short 1½ hour drive from the city, and our home for the next couple of nights. The castle, originally the property of the O’Reilly family, was confiscated in the 17th century by Cromwell, and given to Colonel Thomas Cooch, has the requisite crenelated walls, turrets, and even sightings of ghosts by various guests over the years. Surrounded by forest and clearings converted in recent years to a golf course, we had the pleasure of walking its grounds accompanied by Oscar, a giant Irish wolfhound with most courtly manners. The guest rooms have been updated for modern day comfort, but the halls and common rooms have been maintained with a rich assortment of paintings, antiques and tapestries, giving us a special sense of privileged living enjoyed by prior residents. We were pleasantly surprised by the excellent meals we were served (an experience we happily continued to enjoy during the rest of our trip,) having been told by prior American visitors that the food in Ireland was bland, and tolerable at best. I don’t know if the cuisine has changed or other travelers did not know where to eat, but the wonderful soups (ubiquitous throughout pubs and restaurants) salmon and other seafood dishes, as well as roasts were as good as any we have sampled throughout other European travels. By the way, don’t try to find corned beef and cabbage in Ireland. Like pizza, it’s an American invention, and we never saw it on any menu in the country.
Newgrange and Knoth are Neolithic monuments, very impressive structures functioning as centers of sun worship, as well as an astronomical calendar. On the winter solstice, the sun shines precisely through a narrow opening, illuminating for 17 minutes the chamber built inside the monument. Constructed of stones set without mortar, the central chamber has an 18 foot high dome, remarkable not only for its architectural features, but also for the large stone slabs at the entrance covered with decorative (or linguistic?) runes, each weighing over ten tons, and made from rocks whose origins had to be at least 40 miles from their current location. The people who created Newgrange were clearly no simple primitives, but possessed architectural and astronomic skills impressive in any age, but especially for the time – 3200 B.C. antedating the pyramids by 600 years, making this the oldest functioning building known to man!
Driving through the Midlands, we pass by the Hill of Tara, seat of the High Kings of Ireland, and an important site since the Stone Age, when a passage tomb was constructed here. We also pass by the Oldbridge estate, the site for the Battle of the Boyne between King William III and his father-in-law, King James II, fought in 1690. Both kings commanded their armies in person, as at stake were the British throne, the French dominance in Europe and religious power in Ireland. Upstream from the battle site is Slane Castle, providing historic tours of the area, and even more popular, comparative Irish whiskey tastings, including their own award winning Slane Castle Irish Whiskey. Needless to say, consumption of alcohol is a popular pastime with both tourists and locals. I must say, I have never drunk so much beer in my life as during the short period of our travel, inspired in no small part by the wonderful dark Guinness on draught available at every pub and restaurant. So, this Irishman walks out of a bar….Hey! It could happen!!!
Sadly, we say good bye to Castle Cabra and head into Dublin. Our hotel, the Gresham, is on O’Connell Avenue (the street name of almost every main thoroughfare in the country, named after Daniel O’Connell, who helped Ireland achieve independence from the British at the beginning of the 20th century) in the center of town. There is a huge Spire built in 2003, almost in front of our hotel, making it easy to find for the directionally challenged.
Miki had arranged to meet one of her Latvian cousins, Andris, accompanied by wife Sylvia, daughter Sandra and son-in-law Edgars, all of whom had flown over from Riga to see us, as well as do some sight-seeing on their own. We had met them a couple of years ago when they stopped by LA, and saw them again last Easter in Riga. They were as warm and welcoming as ever and together we toured around the sights of Dublin. Sandra, true to her hyper-organized persona, came with schedules of activities for us, divided into categories based on the presence/absence of rain or sunshine. Since the sun was shining, and it was a balmy 68F, we scratched the museums on the list, and proceeded to walk through the city, stopping to admire the campus of Trinity College, Ireland’s equivalent of Oxford or Harvard, and home to the justly famous illuminated manuscript, the Book of Kels. We saw the suspension bridge wonderfully designed to look like a harp, the official symbol of Ireland. (No, it’s not the shamrock.) Anchored in the river is the sailing ship Jennie Johnston, used to transport victims escaping the potato famine to the United States. Unlike other ships, whose passengers suffered death rates of up to 90% during the crossing due to combination of malnutrition, overcrowding and the rough North Atlantic, the Jennie Johnston never lost a passenger, perhaps in part due to the owners providing a ship board doctor, Richard Blennerhassett, for each crossing.
We also got acquainted with Inese and her beautiful young daughter, Kristine. Inese is another member of the large Kalpins clan who, unbeknownst to us, had moved to Dublin six years earlier, discovering belatedly that she really should have paid more attention when studying English in school. (It’s a deficiency she has quite well corrected.) She guided us to a Mongolian Barbecue restaurant for dinner that proved to be quite good, then to a pub that featured Irish dancers as part of the evening entertainment. The somewhat substantial entrance fee included dinner, but as we had already eaten, she managed to sweet talk the bouncer at the door to let us watch the show only for the price of the drinks we consumed. Never underestimate the power of a pretty Latvian face! By the time intermission came, Miki and I were ready to call it a night, especially as we had to be up early in the morning. Andris, however, who has boundless energy (I can see where Sandra inherited hers), insisted on staying to the bitter end, rightly pointing out, “that life is short, and when are we going to be in Dublin again?”
The following morning, we drive to Waterford, where the shoppers in the group could indulge themselves in making purchases and having crystal shipped home. As Miki and I own more stuff than we really need, we chose to forego the factory and gift shop tour, and instead, spent our time wandering through the city. A large round tower fortress was showing an exhibition of Viking artifacts, the people who were the prime reason these fortifications were needed. Scattered elsewhere throughout the country, especially near the estuary of rivers, we found many other tall towers, designed to give early warning and hopefully, some protection, against the fury of the Norsemen.
We spent three nights in a modern luxury hotel overlooking the River Lee in Cork, Ireland’s second largest city. According to Fran, our friend and travel guide for umpteen years, this is the best place to shop in the country. Since this doesn’t motivate us, I spent more useful time wandering around the beautiful campus of the University of Cork, visiting a couple of interesting churches, and watching the life of the city ebb and flow around me.
You can’t come to Ireland without visiting Blarney and having the opportunity to acquire the gift of gab. Since I already know that this process involves having a person hold on to your legs while you hang backwards and kiss a rock whose original function was to act as a backstop for those in the old days who hung their behinds out to achieve vital elimination needs (a little inside joke on tourists on the part of the Irish,) I decided to bypass this adventure. I already have sufficient GI experience, not to mention sufficient gab (at least according to Miki.)
Having so far managed to escape the commercial sirens of the Irish, the Blarney Woolen Mills finally reeled us in, as Miki and I purchased some souvenir sweaters as well as gifts for our Stateside friends. Overall, we managed to limit our purchases to minimal amounts, though I would have been happy to sneak a keg of Guinness into one of our suitcases had that been a possibility. And I’m a person who has never been much of a beer drinker!
The story of Cobh’s historic legacy is dramatically recalled in a multimedia exhibition housed in a restored Victorian railway station. This was the last place where families leaving Ireland said their good byes to those who were being left behind, knowing they would never see each other again. Of the six million adults and children who emigrated from Ireland from 1848 to 1950, about 2.5 million sailed from Cobh, including Annie Moore and her two children, the first arrivals to Ellis Island in 1892. This was also the last port of the ill-fated Titanic that sank on its maiden voyage in 1912, as well as the place where the few survivors and bodies of many of the 1,198 casualties were brought after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-boat during World War I.
To relieve the gloom of Cobh, we move on to Kinsale, a town with brightly painted houses bedecked with flowers overlooking a harbor filled with pleasure craft. The place is a photographer’s paradise, and I run my camera battery dry, taking shot after shot of what my photographer friend Michael caustically refers to as postcard photos. Hey – I like postcards!
We now enter County Kerry, Brendan’s home grounds, where he regales us with stories about what makes this land superior to the rest of the Irish countryside. Here we find Muckross House, its formal gardens and elaborate interiors, built at great expense by a wealthy businessman hoping to gain favor with Queen Victoria, who was scheduled to spend a night there during a State visit to Ireland. Sadly, the man ran himself into bankruptcy, and he never was elevated to the nobility despite the outpouring of his fortune for his Queen.
The three nights we spent in Killarney afforded us the luxury of doing some hiking in the area, seeing some of the surrounding lakes and castles, and enjoying evening entertainment at many of the good nearby pubs, such as the Danny Mann. Here was our chance to also catch a performance by Liam O’Connor, certified by the Guinness Book of World Records of having the fastest fingers in the world, capable of playing over 11 notes per second, and called by one magazine “the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion.” It was a most entertaining evening!
Most of the thatched roofs seen in old photographs of Ireland have been replaced by modern tile, but in the town of Adare, a number have been preserved for feasting of tourist cameras. As far as the weather is concerned, we were incredibly lucky throughout our trip. We had sun at least part of each day save one, where we ran into rain while visiting the Cliffs of Moher. Even in the mist and drizzle, the 700 foot sheer cliffs, constantly battered by the pounding surf, provided plenty of visual drama. And we had clear weather for outing to Dingle Bay, claimed by Brendan to be one of the ten most scenic spots in the world; who am I to argue with him? I have to agree, it was spectacular. On the way, we saw the beach on which the movie “Ryan’s Daughter” was filmed – another scenic spot. Speaking of movies, Brendan, during our visit to Cong, the village where the John Wayne-Maureen O’Hara film “The Quiet Man” was made, not only gave us detailed descriptions of scenes from the movie in their original locations, but also much of the dialogue. It was a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination.
Bunratty Castle, yet another stone walled fortress, provided for us not only a medieval feast inside the castle, but also saw me crowned as Earl of Bunratty with Miki as my noble Lady. It was a fun evening with very good food, eaten only with hands, naturally, and accompanied by entertainment from the various costumed courtiers. We were given special attention and service, I got to ham it up, and after the celebrations concluded, I have to confess – “It’s good to be king!”
Before returning from Galway Bay to Dublin, and seeing the famed marble of Connnemara (the green is 6-700 million years old, while the black, containing shell fossils only 200 million years) I need to share a couple of Brendan’s stories that gave clues to Irish humor and character. (Brendan himself always referred to his wife as “the Leader of the Opposition.”) One is the story of the Wesclare Railway, a narrow gauge train famous for always being late. A journalist who wrote a story of the train’s perpetual tardy schedule was sued by the railway for slander and defamation. The judge decreed that the man from the railroad filing suit be in court by 9 AM to prove these charges. When the man showed up over an hour late, the judge was furious. “How dare you besmirch the honor of this court by your tardiness?” he demanded. The man apologized, explaining he was on the Wesclare Railway tracks on time, but the train was an hour late coming. The case was dismissed without the defendant needing to open his mouth!
Brendan’s other story involved poteen, a distilled spirit similar to our “moonshine” and equally illegal. A man was caught with the appropriate distillery equipment for making this potent alcohol, and brought before the judge for a plea. The man said, “Not guilty!” “How can you claim to be not guilty when you were caught with all the equipment necessary for the commission of this crime?” demanded the judge. The man replied, “Your honor, you might as well charge me with rape, then, for I have all the equipment necessary for that, as well.”
Back in Dublin after two weeks on the road, we sadly say good bye to Brendan, as well as all our fellow travelers who made the trip so enjoyable for us. Before we leave, we meet up with Inese and Kristine, as well as Inese’s Irish fiancé, Gavin, who we see for the first time. Working in the construction business, he gives us an insider’s view of the boom and bust period of the Celtic Tiger, and the amazing fortunes made and lost during this time. He and Inese seem to be a good pair, and we hope to see them again in the future.
I learned a new, uniquely Irish word on this trip, craic, meaning joyful, happy. It provides the perfect adjective, for we, indeed, had a craic journey. All too quickly, time, like the wind-blown clouds, has whipped by, and we are once more headed back to the States, though with a stopover in Boston for Miki’s 35th Harvard Dental School reunion. That, however, is another postcard. To all who shared this wonderful journey with us, be well, and share with us your story and photos. For those friends who weren’t in Ireland, we recommend a visit, and hope to see you soon.
Be well,
J.

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POSTCARD FROM CARMEL


POSTCARD FROM CARMEL

Once every five years or so, we join our friends Mike and Jeanine to celebrate their wedding anniversary in Hawaii. We intended to do the same this year, but when we saw the airfares to the islands (close to a $800 per person this summer, and only marginally lower now,) we decided to go to Plan B, and rent a place on the beach closer to home. We were researching options in California when Michael found an ad for a house, perched on a rocky cliff eight miles south of Carmel, removed from lights and civilization, with a hot tub on deck, and views of the coastline as far as the eye can see. When we saw that this could be our dream home for a week at a price far less than the cost of airfare to Hawaii, we said, “Sold!”

It’s rare for a place to look better in real life than in the advertising brochure, but “Sea Swept” has exceeded its billings. You could easily cruise by on Hwy 1 towards Big Sur, and never know the place was here, except for a small white mailbox by the side of the road, and a discreetly set- back wooden appearing fence (concealing the iron electrically operated mechanism) with a small keypad on the side, and a sign cautioning you to “Beware of Dog.”  (We later found the final resting place of “Rags” under a Cypress by the ocean, dreaming his eternal dreams of chasing rabbits through the fields, so the sign was not a complete bluff.) As you come down the curving driveway, the majesty of the Pacific unfolds in front of you. The single story house with weathered spruce siding and picture windows on all sides sits off to one side, set back about 20-30 feet from the edge of the cliff, surrounded by a well trimmed lawn, succulents, and low cut bushes. Flagstones lead up to the porch, on which sit comfortable rocking chairs, a wooden chaise lounge, and a few plants in pots. The other side of the house also has a deck, with the hot tub strategically placed to afford views of the sunset and the night skies for the sybaritic visitor. The kitchen is small, but functional, and unusually well stocked with all manner of cookware and implements. The owners, recently here, I’m told, even generously left us several bottles of half consumed wine, as well as an assortment of liqueurs, gin and whiskeys.

The master bedroom (won by Miki and I by a coin toss with Michael) has cathedral ceilings with a wall of giant north facing windows that give the place a planetarium like feel at night, along with a westerly facing picture windows so you can see the sunsets and the pelicans flying in tight V-formation cruising by on their way south. (All day long we watch these large birds flying by in flocks of 3 to 30, and always headed in the same direction. Either they are in a migration pattern, or they get shipped north in trucks during the night by the Chamber of Commerce to give more picturesque views for the visitors as they stream South by the cliffs and glide over the waves with less than a foot clearance for their wings during the daytime.) The back bedroom has a separate entrance to the outside, and sliding glass doors with a view of the ocean to the south. There are two full bathrooms, so we don’t have to step on each other’s morning routines.

To the south of the house sits a bench, surrounded by ice plants turning various shades of orange and red, and an unobstructed view of the coastline with a rocky shoreline pounded by crashing waves. We can see several small islands of giant boulders that dot the shores from Big Sur, and extend up past Oregon and through the Pacific Northwest. We see several seals frolicking in the foam below the house, and can hear their distinctive bark as we hike up and down the coast. Brown seaweed spreads itself out like hair over barnacled rocks; gulls send up plaintive cries. Waves lap in with tongues of foam and recede, the smooth weathered rocks clattering like bones. Harder to see, but easily visible with binoculars, are the sea otters, as they wrap themselves around with seaweed for anchor, and float lazily on their back, often with a stone they hold with their paws on their bellies, used for cracking open the abalone shells, which are the favorite parts of their diet. (Who said man is the only tool using animal?) Having almost been hunted to extinction by Russian fur traders in the mid 1800’s, these small 15 pound aquatic mammals are now abundant along California’s Central Coast, consuming their weight in abalone every four days. That’s a lot of abalone!

We drove up in two cars, so we need not be tied to each other at the hip while here. It was a good thing, because each car was packed with groceries, giving us enough food and wine for the duration of our stay. Jeanine and I both enjoy cooking, but we decided to take off for one of the nights and drive into Carmel for dinner. I used to visit here yearly for the Western Society for Clinical Research meetings, so I knew many of the places in town. However, chefs and restaurants change, so I did a little online research, and came up with Anton and Michele’s, a French-Continental place in a very elegant setting near the center of town. The reviews I read turned out to be spot-on, and the food and service were both exceptional. To top off the evening, Michael and Miki split an order of Bananas Foster, flambéed at table side. It was a dish I hadn’t seen since I lived at New Orleans, where it was originally invented. A taste confirmed it was good as I had remembered.

We have brought a number of books with us, and Jeanine and Miki a couple of 1000 piece puzzles, of which they have already completed one. We have no cell phone reception along this part of the coast, so we are not tempted to break the blissful seclusion this place provides. It is, as Miki likes to say, “the relaxation response.”

I love to hike, and there are over 80 outstanding hiking trails within 40 miles of us, so I am in seventh heaven. Some of the trails wind through the giant redwoods of Big Sur, while others follow streams through narrow, fern laced canyons. Some lead up to waterfalls, or vistas of the spectacular countryside, whereas others meander along the craggy coastline, revealing pristine, empty beaches, scenic coves with white foaming waves, or tide pools with circling hungry shore birds looking for lunch. Miki loves big waves, and this is the place and time of year to see them. Giant, roiling, 15 foot monsters that come on with the power of freight trains, splaying cataracts of froth into Titanic fountains as they crash into the cliffs and boulders along the beach. Each day, the ocean is different, switching from the wine dark seas of Homer near dusk to aqua and green swirls through which we spot playful dolphins thrilling themselves in their freedom. Aquatic palms, anchored in the rocks below us, bend with each watery assault, then spring upright as the waves recede, mull their fates, then bow once more as the waves come roiling back again.

One day, as I’m looking at potential hiking trails, I discover, much to my surprise, that Mike and Jeanine have never been to Point Lobos State Park, arguably the most scenic section of coastline in this part of the country. It was an omission we easily remedied, and chose a good time to do it. Absent of tour buses and swarms of visitors, we practically had the place to ourselves. We came across more docents eager to help us and point out the wonders of the local flora and fauna than we did tourists. M & J got to see the iconic Lone Cypress, the rocks filled with barking seals, and the grand vistas for which the park is justly famous.

We have lucked into Camelot weather. Sunny, clear days, just brisk enough to make a vest or a light fleece comfortable for a hike, with evening clouds rolling in to help make the sunset more memorable, followed by a night time storm, where the howling wind and driving rain makes the comfort of the house even more cozy and welcoming, all disappearing for hopeful morning sunrise. We couldn’t have prayed for anything better. Each day, we remind ourselves how fortunate we are, to be able to be in this magical setting, to share the experience with each other, to be healthy enough to do the things we are doing, to have the abundance of good food and drink we consume each day – we take none of this for granted, and are grateful.

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POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE


POSTCARD FROM PARIS & BRUGGE

It was the best of times; it was the briefest of times. We had not been back to Paris since Peter and Stephanie’s marriage a little over five years ago, and we were excited at the prospect of seeing them in their natural habitat, in their new home. Air Tahiti Nui has a non-stop from LA to Paris, and before you finished saying “fromage,” (the food on the flight was excellent, including ample samples of the aforementioned substance so essential to French life) we whisked through customs at Charles de Gaulle. After negotiating a small confusion as to which level of the airport garage we were to meet son Peter and our daughter-in-law, we successfully united, to be swept away by Stephanie in her Renault Twingo into the city. We had never ridden in her car before, and had minor concerns regarding the four of us fitting in her small vehicle with even our limited carry-on luggage. We needn’t have feared, as the Twingo accommodated our stuff behind the seat, and we found the back seat to be surprisingly spacious and comfortable. Stephanie, who drives with the élan and skill of an F1 Formula driver, had us back in the heart of Paris in record time. Weekends are definitely the time to arrive here, as traffic is light, and you avoid the many bouchons (traffic jams) frequent at other times.

Peter found us a hotel, the Residence Quintinie Square in the 15th, literally around the corner from their apartment. Our room was nicely appointed with coffee service on the table and a view of the park across the street out our window. It had a functioning elevator (not a fact to be taken for granted in Paris) and was very comfortable. After unpacking and briefly freshening up, we proceeded next door for our introductory visit to their home.

Peter and Stephanie live on the fourth floor (which in France is really the fifth floor, as the ground floor is considered to be 0) in a renovated building with a winding wooden staircase. There is no elevator, so you better check what you want to bring with you before leaving the apartment, or be prepared for more exercise. I now have a better appreciation of how the French are able to consume the quantities of baguettes and croissants they take in regularly, and still manage to stay slim. Between the stairs on the Metro you negotiate regularly up and down, walking and carrying groceries, then dealing with the stairs in your building, you really don’t need a Stairmaster or a gym membership.

Their slightly larger than 70 sq. meter apartment is very cute, efficiently laid out, and filled with wonderful light. I especially liked their wooden floors, the working fireplace in the living room (which they hadn’t yet used, but were planning to do so soon) and their newly remodeled kitchen. They wisely chose to furnish the place in a tasteful, minimalist style, yet with comfortable chairs and couches. Steph seems to have successfully reigned in Peter’s tendency for clutter and hoarding, which I must confess, has a genetic predisposition.

Shopping for food in Paris is daily ritual, made so by the small size of apartments and storage facility, as well as by the admirable desire to eat fresh food daily. While supermarkets are to be found in small numbers in parts of the city, most people still shop for their vegetables, bakery goods, meats, fish, and wines in separate stores. This is certainly less efficient than our one stop shopping, but it also provides a much more personal experience with the shop keepers who know their regular customers, as well as for a less homogenous choice of probably higher quality products. So far, Parisians have been able to resist the ruthless efficiency of the marketplace to maintain this style of life. Personally, I hope they always do. I also was impressed by the artistic arrangement of the food products in all the stores we passed, as well as by the abundance of floral stands along our way. No wonder Paris is the trendsetter for beauty throughout the world!

After laying in provisions for dinner, the kids took us for lunch at a small near-by restaurant.  It was one of those little, hole-in-the-wall places, filled with charm and eccentricity that can be found in a few cities around the world, but not many.  Drapeau de la Fidelite is owned by a Vietnamese gentleman who apparently was a professor of philosophy in Saigon. The small restaurant is filled with books, including many classics, primarily in French. Diners are free to browse through the collection. In addition, they can purchase one of the three books written by the owner on various philosophic topics. The food was extremely reasonably priced, excellent, and consisted of mostly Vietnamese dishes. Students are given a 10% discount on the menu items. It was a great introduction to our Paris sojourn.

Having arrived at 9 AM, and now starting to fight the nine hour jet lag, we knew it was not a good idea to give in to our fatigue, but stay up as late as possible to get adjusted to our new time zone. Accordingly, Miki, Peter and I headed out to the Place de la Concorde on the Metro, while Steph went back to the apartment to grade some of her students’ papers.  Now best known for the impressive 3200 year obelisk from Luxor given to King Louis Philippe by the viceroy of Egypt, the magnificent and historic square was once also the home of the guillotine, where in 1793 Louis XVI was beheaded, followed by over 1300 others, including Marie Antoinette, Robespierre, Madame du Barry, and Charlotte Corday, Marat’s assassin. The optimistic current name of the square was given the year after, when the Reign of Terror ended.

By this time, we were running out of energy, so we found some comfortable chairs by one of the fountains in the Tuileries, along the scenic garden path connecting the Louvre to the Place de la Concorde. Here, we proceeded to partake in one of our favorite travel activities, people watching. It was a sunny and balmy afternoon, drawing large numbers of locals as well as tourists to enjoy the charms of the park. We spent a couple of hours immersed in the flow of life around us, which Miki also used for what she considered to be a surreptitious nap. Then it was getting late, so we headed back to meet Steph. By the time we got to the apartment, we decided we were too tired to have dinner, so we opted for some cheese, sliced cold cuts, and a glass of wine before calling it a night. Steph had to work the next day, and we agreed to meet Peter in the morning for breakfast.

Neither of us had any trouble falling or staying asleep. I was awakened the next day by what I thought was the buzzing of the alarm clock. When pounding on the switches didn’t diminish the annoying “bbrrrr, bbrrrr, bbrrrr” noise, I decided to pick up the phone. The voice of the concierge conveyed to me in his limited English, “Call to you,” which was followed by what suspiciously sounded like a dial tone. I looked at the phone to see if there were any other buttons to push, and finding none, proceeded to yell “hello” several times without response. Miki finally woke up enough to ask “Who was that?” and to inform me it was 7 in the morning. Unable to elicit a response, I hung up the phone, only to have it ring again, and be greeted by the same message from the concierge, followed by the same dial tone. When the phone rang for the third time about 30 seconds later, I finally got Peter on the line, wanting to know if we were O.K. “Of course we were O.K.” I told him, “but why the hell are you calling us at 7 in the morning? Is something wrong?” He seemed taken aback at first, but then confirmed it was really 12:30 in the afternoon. With the curtains closed and the room dark, we had slept for over 16 hours! This was a new record, even for Miki.

With over half the day already behind us, we met Peter in the apartment for our next foray into Paris life. After some coffee and a piece of baguette generously slathered with Regine’s (Steph’s mom’s) wonderful homemade confiture, we were ready to face the world. Fortunately, we had both spent enough time in Paris on prior visits that none of us felt the need to do the usual touristy things (much, I suspect, to Peter’s relief.)  Instead, our goal was to explore some of Paris’s varied neighborhoods, immerse ourselves in the local life, and meet some of Peter’s many eclectic friends. Thus, we headed out to the Canal St. Martin, a 5 km. waterway with numerous locks from the 1800’s built to create a shortcut for river traffic between loops of the Seine. Still in use today, its tree lined quays, iron footbridges and public gardens are ideal for a leisurely stroll. Peter told us that on summer evenings, the banks of the canal are filled with picnickers and young lovers (not necessarily exclusive of each other.) There is a peaceful feeling walking along the well-worn steps and cobblestones of the quays, with overhanging trees providing a canopy filter for the wonderful light that has made Paris every photographer’s dream.

Peter had called his friend Jim to meet us at a waterside café. We had met Jim briefly at the wedding, and had a chance to chat with him at the time, as he and his girlfriend were sitting at our table. Five years later he was still the warm, interesting man I had remembered. He and his Vietnamese girlfriend, M.C. were still together, but he had recently taken leave of his IT job of many years, and was taking a sabbatical to consider what option to pursue for the future. He is an avid photographer, an avocation he shares with Peter. I admired his willingness to take risks, and give thoughtful guidance to his future, rather than drifting through life as many others seem to do. We had a pleasant, albeit brief, time at the café, as I had many other issues I would have liked to have discussed with him, but they will have to wait until our next meeting. After the café, we stopped in one of the many wonderful book stores found all throughout Paris – this one specialized in books on art and photography. (Sadly, the big book chains in the States have just about driven these great repositories of art and culture into almost complete extinction.)  I could have easily stayed in the store (or several of the others we had visited during our stay) for hours, but the troops were getting hungry, so it was time to head home.  On the way back, we again visited Peter’s local produce stand and boulangerie (Miki was not about to be deprived of her baguette!) while I popped into the wine store to pick up a bottle to complement our dinner.

Peter is most fortunate in having not only an intelligent and beautiful young wife, but also one who is an excellent cook. I must say, we enjoyed our role as honored guests, sitting at the table munching on appetizers and sipping wine, while the “children” prepared dinner for us. Steph’s salad was delicious, and her Cake aux Cardons et au Romarin was light and scrumptious. If you beg her, as I did, she may share the recipe with you. Sated with great food and good wine, we headed off to sleep.

The following day, Miki had made arrangements to meet her classmate from the Harvard orthodontic program in Chartres.  Nil lives in Paris, but commutes each day an hour by train to his office in Chartres.  He is a wonderful, warm man with courtly manners, who met us at the train station and proceeded to take us for lunch at Le Grand Monarque, one of the top restaurants in the city. Waiting for us at the table were Nil’s two office assistants, the vivacious Martine who loves to dance and smiles with her eyes, and the charming Francoise.  The restaurant, with its glass ceilinged atrium, attentive staff and rich linens brought back the quiet elegance of a bygone era. Nil, as always, was the perfect host, and any meal that starts off with champagne and foie gras, proceeds through wine and fresh sole that melts in your mouth, then finishes with a grand cafe royal, is not one to be forgotten.  As enjoyable as the meal, so was seeing the happiness and affection of two old friends reunited again.

Nil is very lucky to have Martine and Francoise, two women who have been with him for a long time, who obviously care about him, his patients, and each other. They appeared to make a well-functioning team, as after lunch they showed us around Nil’s office, located in an old house just a seven minute walk from the train station.  It felt more like a home than a dental office, and I’m sure its atmosphere, along with the warmth of Nil and his team, helped to ease young patient’s anxieties.

You can’t come to Chartres and not visit its justly famous cathedral. Arguably, it has the most magnificent stained glass windows of any church in the world. We were certainly dazzled by the panoply of colors on display, including the unique Chartres blue. The edifice and its brilliant colored windows draw the eyes of every visitor skyward, just as their creator intended. Regardless of your faith, you cannot escape a sense of awe in a place like this.

I could recount the chronology of our entire visit, but that would only bring boredom to those of you who are already getting tired of reading, so allow me skip around, and hit a few highlights.  Did I mention the food? Aside from the great meals Stephanie prepared for us, we found another noteworthy restaurant by serendipity. Prior to our visit, we were watching a program by Anthony Bourdain about some of his favorite French restaurants. Some were places that required reservations months in advance, and a mortgage on your house to pay the bill.  However, he mentioned a small place that served excellent food, was reasonable, and that he recommended highly, Je the…me. Turns out, we found a card for the place posted on the bulletin board of our hotel, and it was located just a few blocks from where we were staying. Miki and I took Peter and Steph there for lunch, and the place lived up to its advertised reputation. Uncharacteristically for French waiters, our server not only shared with us his opinions and recommendations about the items on the menu, but also his opinions about politics, tourists from other countries (the Russians are the worst) and the state of the economy.  The lunch was sufficiently tasty that we decided to come back for a farewell dinner the evening prior to our departure for the States.

You can’t be in Paris without paying a visit to Montmartre.  The steep hill has been associated with artists for over 200 years, from Corot to Utrillo to Modigliani. Today, street artists thrive predominantly on the tourist trade, but much of the area still preserves its villagey, sometimes seedy, prewar atmosphere. Street performers are abundant. Two standouts included a group of three young men from South Africa singing self –composed ballads in French that carried both a flavor of jazz, native African rhythms and gospel.  Le Presteej (the name of the group) sounded so good that we stopped for over a half hour to listen to them play, then went on to buy one of their CD’s. We were far from the only ones to do so. Standing on the bottom steps of the Sacre Coeur, the impressive white basilica best viewed from the outside rather than from within, the “White Man” was doing his shtick. Looking at first glance like a statue, he would periodically come to life to the amusement (and occasional shock) of passers-by.  However, the performer who deservedly garnered the most attention was a young black man with a soccer ball across the street. Bouncing and dribbling the ball with his feet, knees, shoulders and head was impressive, but nothing I hadn’t seen soccer players do before. It was when he proceeded to climb a thirty foot light pole while performing these same feats that he set himself apart from mere mortals and joined the ranks of the top Cirque de Soleil performers. The appreciative crowd rewarded his feat with showers of euros.  The panoramic vista of Paris from the basilica steps is alone worth the climb up the Montmartre. And for those who have the energy, I recommend avoiding the ease of the funicular, but rather walking along the streets to see the windmill, the still working vineyard (whose wine is auctioned off after the harvest each October) and various small shops with window items ranging from the artistic to the bizarre.

One rainy day, we met up with Mark, the best man at Peter’s wedding, a writer now working on his Ph.D. while teaching at the Sorbonne. An Irishman with a neatly trimmed beard, prematurely thinning hairline, and lively dark eyes, he exudes intelligence, focused energy, and the charming story-telling ability made famous by his other countrymen.  Miki and I were both charmed by his company, and were grateful that Peter had made a friend like him. He promised to help us plan our trip to his homeland, a promise I intend for him to keep.

One Sunday when Stephanie was off work, we all drove to Sceaux on the outskirts of Paris, close to where she and Peter used to live before moving into their current place. They treated us to a wonderful al fresco lunch, then gave us a tour of Parc Sceaux and its chateaux.  The vast grounds are an appealing mixture of formal gardens, woods and water. The gardens use water to a great effect, with tiered waterfalls and fountains presenting a moving staircase that cascades into an octagonal basin. The basin feeds into a grand canal offering poplar lined views of a baroque pavilion. Though smaller in scale than Versailles, to me this park held the greater appeal.

One afternoon we met two more of Peter’s friends, Jason and Chris. I had heard a lot about both of them, so I was looking forward to seeing them in person. Jason is a young American with long blond hair, filled with energy, who is in the process of re-writing his life – literally. He had a rough start, with many of the detours that alcohol and drugs can bring, but decided to choose life over oblivion, and was now attempting to use the material of his prior existence to inform his current writing and work. An admitted autodidact, he was an interesting conversationalist. Chris is British with some of the reserve for which the English are known.  He works as sportswriter covering professional soccer, and was due to cover a soccer match in Brugge, which also happened to be our next destination. He was quite surprised when we told him about our good luck in avoiding the train strike in Belgium, scheduled right after our departure. Turns out, that was the day he was scheduled to leave! (We later found out he ended  up having to take the bus.) Chris also turned out to be the top ping pong player in our group, followed by Jason, then Peter, with myself as a distant fourth. Watching people play any sport reveals a lot about their nature, and for all his quiet demeanor, it was obvious that Chris is a fierce competitor, but one who is content to let his opponent make a decent showing, as long as the score is not too close. Jason also has a lot of drive – he and his girlfriend were in training to run the marathon this fall – in Greece!

We had many more pleasant and interesting Paris experiences (did you know that Paris has a counterfeit museum? (Musee de la Contrefacon) And that besides Gucci and Louis Vitton knock offs, there are counterfeit drugs, wines, and even Tabasco sauce and Bic pens?) but we have to move this story along or it will become a novella, so let’s move on to Brugge.

Having nixed our plans to rent a car and drive to Brugge (read the fine print in the car rental contract before you rent one next time outside of the USA) we had our reservation on the Thalys (Belgium’s answer to the TGV, France’s high speed train system) that thankfully departed hours before the above mentioned strike went into effect. For those used to US trains, being whisked along at 200 km/hr. without much perceptible noise or vibration is a pleasant experience.  Even with a change of trains in Brussels, we arrived in Brugge a mere two hours after leaving Paris.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, Bruggge is a wonderful place preserved in time, offering an easily accessible collection of medieval and Gothic architecture, museums, culture, music, and wonderful food. If you love chocolate, this is the place to come, for if Belgium is the chocolate center of the world, Brugge is its capital. Without exaggeration, there are two or three chocolate shops on every block, each selling their unique, homemade products. Needless to say, we sampled several.  Our only saving grace was that the chocolates were not only fantastic, but by our standards, fantastically expensive.  So we contended ourselves to eating one piece occasionally, which is no doubt the way they were intended to be consumed. Ah, but how satisfying that experience!

Much like Amsterdam,  Brugge is laid out along canals, which add a picturesque charm to the city, and also allows visitors to tour around in one the several boats offering this service. We availed ourselves of this opportunity, and if any of you choose to visit here, I would strongly recommend you do the same. For those preferring land based travel, horse drawn carriages make their way all around the city, but thankfully without producing any of the by-product this type of propulsion creates.  (A clever leather collection apparatus at the tail end of the equine engine gathers all the waste.) Inveterate walkers that we are, we eschewed the carriage rides, but for those with limited time or mobility issues, I can see the benefit.

There are sixteen museums in Brugge, and I must confess, we didn’t see a single one. Not that the museums didn’t offer any art of note; just that to me, the city itself was the most interesting art work to be seen.  The Church of Our Lady, with its 122-meter brick steeple, dominates the skyline of the city. Its stone work is the high spot of the medieval stonemason’s art.  Inside, you can find the classic ‘Madonna and Child’ by Michelangelo. Brugge’s town hall dates from the late 1300’s, and the Gothic entry chamber and polychrome ceiling makes for an impressive work of art in itself. While we were there, we found a movie set in the Middle Ages being filmed there. The actors, in their period costume, helped to complete our time travel back to life 500 years ago.

The Belfry tower on the Market square contains an impressive clock and a carillon with 47 bells. They have a two hour concert daily each summer, but during our visit, the music was reduced to thirty minutes. There are benches in front of the Belfry, providing a wonderful vantage point from which to survey the passing of city life. Again, we had a great chance to indulge our second favorite travel activity – people watching.  In case you hadn’t already figured it out, eating ranks at the top. There were certainly no shortage of bistros from which to choose.  Moules (mussels) and frites (French fries) are Belgian staples, and almost every restaurant we saw had them on the menu. And there is a reason they are called Belgian waffles… Our favorite food find, however, turned out to be a tiny restaurant, Malesherbes, tucked in alley so narrow we initially missed, though we were looking for it. Owned by a Parisian but run by a Belgian staff, the place was my idea of what a perfect restaurant should be – warm, cozy, with a helpful and attentive staff, offering a menu filled with scrumptious choices that made you want to go back and try every dish, a wine list with reasonably priced bottles from a wide choice of varietals and geographies, and an aftertaste that stayed with you and made you lick your lips periodically, hoping you’d find a morsel you’d improbably missed – yes, we loved it!

One of the nice things our hotel provided was a booklet about the city containing four different walking tours, along with a brief description of what you were seeing along the way. Each walk was 2 ½ to three miles long, and in our four day stay, we managed to do all of them. One took us along the periphery of the city along one of the larger canals, taking us past a beautiful and peaceful Jesuit monastery, a verdant levee dotted with four working windmills, and a replica of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher built by a returning pilgrim from the Holy Land a couple of hundred years ago. Another meandered through Lowland shops and residences, the gardens of convent, past almshouses (small homes for the retired and the infirm built hundreds of years ago, each containing a tiny chapel where the residents were expected to pray for the benefactors who supplied their abodes,) and the inevitable canals. Everywhere the homes had windows with custom lace curtains (lace and tapestries, along with chocolate, being the most famous exports of the region.) Each window had a window box filled with blooming flowers. The streets are all spotlessly clean, broken up by small parks containing statues and more modern art pieces.

Last, but far from the least, there is another reason to visit Brugge – the beer. Neither Miki or I are particularly big beer drinkers, but we both enjoyed our sampling of local drafts. As many bars and restaurants offer up to 200 different brews, the choices were almost overwhelming. We loved all the ones we tried, and I seriously doubt we could have found one not to our liking.

I could write a great deal more, but if you haven’t already formed an image of what our trip was like by now, I doubt more description would help. Needless to say, we loved every moment, especially the time spent with Peter, Stephanie and their great collection of friends. If your name hasn’t appeared in these pages, it’s not because we didn’t think about or talk about you during our travels. The fact is, you, our families and friends, travel with us wherever we go. Be well.

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